Antiheroes in Ascendance
On Devouring Radiant Light, Skeletonwitch slay ghosts, dragons and expectations as the band berserks its way across the threshold of greatness
To be fair, it’s not as if Joseph Campbell didn’t try to warn them.
After all, if one applies the classic monomyth architecture to the epic of Skeletonwitch, it is, in retrospect, fairly clear that the band’s stellar 2013 full-length Serpents Unleashed saw the Athens, Ohio, blackened thrash-death quintet teetering on the edge of what Campbell dubbed in his landmark 1949 comparative mythology treatise, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the “entrance to the zone of magnified power.” (Excellent!) But wait: “Beyond,” the American mythologist adds, “is darkness, the unknown and danger.” (Bogus!)
Alas, right on schedule, them black clouds blew in toward the end of 2014 when founding vocalist and formidable frontman Chance Garnette was dismissed mid-tour amid reports he’d been arrested and charged with “assault and battery on a family/household member” in Worcester, Massachusetts—his brother Nate is the band’s founding guitarist—thereby plunging Skeletonwitch into the metaphorical “belly of the whale,” wherein the hero—or, in this case, collective antihero—neither conquers nor conciliates, but, rather, learns the hard way that “passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation” and is deposited “into the land of trials” in which “dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again and again.”
And—to its credit—slay and surprise Skeletonwitch did, finishing the ill-fated tour as an instrumental four-piece, hitting the road with ex-Cannabis Corpse/Battlemaster vocalist Andy Horn, recruiting Wolvhammer vocalist Adam Clemans as a permanent replacement, delivering scorching sets on the 2016 Decibel tour, and releasing the perfectly respectable The Apothic Gloom EP that same year.
None of these, however, are remotely as impressive or fearsome as the coup Skeletonwitch pulls off on its first full-length in five years, Devouring Radiant Light, an album comprising eight hydra-eviscerating tracks that are not merely the best, most fully actualized compositions of the band’s 15-year existence by far—no small feat, that—but some of the greatest boundary-smashing, subgenre-transcending, high-octane heavy fucking metal of the past decade, period. The electric creativity crackling within the maelstrom of cunning riffs and rhythms; the seamless melding of atmosphere and primal aggression; the crisp intricacy and nuance-excavating Kurt Ballou production; the unbridled ferocity of the vocals… Skeletonwitch is having its Master of Puppets and At the Heart of Winter moments simultaneously, and it is, if the band will forgive the superlative, absolutely motherfucking divine—the extreme music equivalent of heroic apotheosis; of, as Campbell put it, those “who know, not only that the Everlasting lies in them, but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord.”